Macabre Belgian Ensor Painted Self as Beetle

Throughout much of northern Europe, the winters are long and

the days are short. Sunlight is scarce in a world of lamplight and shadow.

Mother Nature provides few comforts, and human nature is often driven to

extremes. The consumption of alcohol is likely to be high, and the food is

certain to be heavy. The suicide rate is likely to be high, too. There is thus

every inducement to poor digestion, neurosis, anomie and nightmare. Theology

adds to the gloom by frowning on pleasure and promising retribution for its

indulgence. Is it any wonder, then, that the art produced in such unforgiving

circumstances has tended-in the past, anyway-to seek release in either fantasy

or transcendence?

Consider the melancholy fate of the Belgian artist James

Ensor (1860-1949), whose early work is currently the subject of a dazzling and

deeply depressing exhibition, Between

Street and Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor , at the Drawing Center in

Soho. Fantasy in the service of mockery and the macabre is what Ensor settled

on as his signature style once he had abandoned the academic tradition in which

he was trained and finished dabbling with the innovations of Courbet and Manet.

The high art of French modernism, with its close attention to pictorial form

and aesthetic nuance, was quickly found to be incommensurate with his own

experience. He needed something harsher to comfort his despair.

An exalted tradition of the macabre and the grotesque lay

close at hand, however, in the art of the Flemish masters Hieronymus Bosch and

Peter Bruegel the Elder. And while certain other influences also affected

Ensor’s art and thought-Impressionist color and Symbolist iconography in

painting, the fiction of Edgar Allan Poe and the poetry of Baudelaire in

literature-he was never to stray very far from the spirit of Flemish

grotesquery in the art that established his international fame. It provided a

perfect correlative for his own spiritual turmoil.

It certainly suited his

isolation and his anger, both of which were spurs to a vision too phantasmagorical

for his contemporaries to countenance. Their fierce hostility to Ensor’s

unbridled taste for an imagery often vicious in its depiction of the benighted

society he loathed only deepened his alienation and misanthropy. By the age of

28, when he produced his greatest painting, Entry

of Christ into Brussels (1888), he had become, in effect, a peintre maudit , fated to offend both the

philistines and the avant-garde. It is a measure of the isolation and acrimony

which Ensor was obliged to endure that Entry

of Christ into Brussels was never publicly exhibited until 1929, more than

four decades after its completion.

Ensor was in any case one of the most reclusive of

modernartists. He was born to an expatriate English father and a Flemish mother

in Ostend, a provincial port city on the North Sea, which, except for a

three-year period of study at the Academy in Brussels, he rarely left. In this

cultural backwater, his family ran what is variously described as a souvenir

shop or stall that stocked, among much else, the grotesque carnival masks that

were a standard adornment for the annual celebrations of Shrove Tuesday, the

last day before Lent, which was marked by masquerade balls and parades of

costumed merrymakers. By all accounts, Ensor was not himself much of a

merrymaker, but those masks became one of the leitmotifs of his paintings and

drawings, in which he made them even more macabre. They came to symbolize life

itself, which for Ensor was always to be regarded as a carnival of cruelty,

deception and hypocrisy.

In the current

exhibition at the Drawing Center, which numbers more than 80 works on paper,

Ensor’s extraordinary gifts as a draftsman are quickly established. One of the

earliest drawings, a red chalk Copy after

Honoré Daumier (1878), exhibits a ferocity and authority worthy of the

master it emulates. So does the conté crayon Copy after Éugene Delacroix (1885). My Father in Death (1887), executed in pencil and gouache, is

masterly in its command of a portrait tradition Ensor was already in the

process of abandoning in favor of fantastic invention.

We don’t have long to wait, however, before Ensor’s more

acerbic depictions of his family, of himself and of all society begin filling

up the exhibition with an inventory of human grotesques. The black chalk

portrait called My Mother or Sloth

(1888) is still traditional in style but chilling in its dour characterization.

The drypoint Peculiar Insects (1888),

in which Ensor depicts himself as a beetle, is really scary-could Franz Kafka

ever have seen this self-portrait as a beetle?-and so is the etching of Skeletonized Self-Portrait (1889).

Skeletons, skulls and other emblems of death-his own and others’-clearly

haunted Ensor’s turbulent imagination in the period of his artistic prime.

A rare note of pride, even vainglory, can be seen, however,

in his depiction of himself as a Rembrandtesque master in the charcoal My Portrait (1884). But in most of

Ensor’s self-portraits, of which there are many in this exhibition, he proves

to be as grim and unforgiving as he is in his depictions of the rest of fallen

humanity. His final statement about himself and his position in society in this

exhibition is one of the last images we encounter before making our exit: The Dangerous Cooks (1896), executed

with considerable care in pencil, chalk and gouache. It depicts a ghoulish

banquet in which Ensor’s is only one of the severed heads-but the most

prominent, of course-that are being served on a tray as a special treat. Well,

you can see why the good burghers of Ostend found him a bit much.

Yet it wasn’t long after

the creation of Dangerous Cooks that

Ensor himself suddenly became something like a respected member of the society

he had so brilliantly abominated in his art. In 1893, he was so discouraged

that he put the entire contents of his studio up for sale for 8,500 francs and

there were no takers. But then, almost overnight, everything changed for the

better and for the worse, which was often the case with Ensor.

In 1895, the Belgian state bought a painting for the Musée

des Beaux-Arts in Brussels, the first to be acquired by a museum. In 1898, he

had a show of his drawings and etchings in Paris, his first outside of Belgium.

In 1899, the Albertina in Vienna bought some 100 etchings, and two years later

the City of Ostend bought a complete set of his etchings. Then he began to be

showered with official honors. In 1903, just 10 years after his failed studio

sale, Ensor was made a Chevalier in

the Ordre de Léopold by royal decree,

and many similar honors followed, culminating in 1929 when King Albert made

Ensor a hereditary baron.

It was precisely the kind of social comedy that the younger

Ensor would have found a rich subject for his merciless satire. Yet all these

honors proved to be fatal to Ensor’s artistic vocation. By 1900, at the age of

40, he was effectively finished as a serious artist. Recognition had robbed him

of the anger that had always been an essential inspiration for his greatest

work. The society he loathed had avenged itself by rendering him artistically impotent.

He lived on for another 49 years, basking in the recognition and honors that

had long been denied him, but nothing that he produced in the 20th century has

been deemed worthy of inclusion in the current exhibition.

Between Street and

Mirror: The Drawings of James Ensor , jointly organized by Robert Hoozee,

director of the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Ghent, and Catherine de Zegher,

director of the Drawing Center, is the first museum show to be devoted to the

artist’s work in New York since the Museum of Modern Art’s 1951 retrospective.

It will therefore be a first encounter with Ensor’s work for most of the people

who get to see it, and not one they will soon forget. It remains on view, at

the Drawing Center, 35 Wooster Street, through July 21, and is accompanied by

an excellent and beautifully printed catalog.